Philosopher's Book Explores the Origins of Art

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Denis Dutton is getting the kind of exposure for which his fellow academics would wrestle saber-toothed tigers.

The New Zealand-based philosophy professor and author of "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution" launched his book tour conventionally enough last month at various California libraries, bookstores and campuses. He then zipped through Washington to deliver a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. That was all very nice, but nothing to write home to Christchurch about.

Ah, but by the time he got to New York, Dutton had landed an appearance on "The Colbert Report."

A philosopher! Getting his book flogged by Stephen Colbert!

What is this man's secret?

Surely it's not that, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Dutton's opus on Darwinism and art "marks out the future of the humanities -- connecting aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature from the cognitive and biological sciences."

Nope. Deep thoughts about the future of the humanities don't usually get the attention of TV bookers or, for that matter, newspaper feature writers.

When it comes to the Darwinian competition that is book marketing, Dutton actually has two secrets: sex and the Internet.

On the one hand, he's picked a topic that easily lends itself to crude Colbertian humor.

On the other, well, he happens to be the founding editor of Arts & Letters Daily, a Web site beloved of academics and media types around the world, where an ad for "The Art Instinct" flashed prominently on-screen for weeks.

"You'll never read Jane Austen -- or look at a landscape -- the same way again," it said.

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